On another night, perhaps Jameis Winston doesn’t throw the ball too far.
In another stadium, perhaps Mike Evans makes another terrific catch.
In another game, perhaps the duo hooks up one more time, and the Tampa Bay Bucs manage to pull the Cowboys’ game out at the end, too.
That’s what you are used to seeing, right? By now, Tampa Bay fans are used to the sight of the Bucs finding a way. They are used to celebrating someone taking the ball away at the end. They are used to Winston leading this team downfield. They are used to seeing men measure up to the moment.
Perhaps that is why it felt so strange – and so lousy – with 2:24 left in the fourth period when Winston had Evans open down the left sideline … and overthrew him.
This time, there would be no rescue.
This time, Bucs coach Dirk Koetter didn’t get to say “the good guys win.”
This time, the two missed, and it was as symbolic as any play in Tampa Bay’s 26-20 loss.
The Bucs actually had the ball five times with a chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter … and failed five times. During that period, Winston was 3-of-12 for 19 yards and two interceptions. Martin carried twice for four yards. The five drives ended up with punts and two interceptions.
And you probably threw your remote control, didn’t you?
That’s the thing about losing. The less a team does it, the more it hurts.
After five straight games of being one of the better teams in the NFL, the Bucs left their fans gargling with acid. This game cost so much – a share of the division lead with Atlanta, which won on Sunday, and expectations of the postseason and their growing self-confidence.
Sure, you can suggest that the Bucs would have been darned fortunate to win this one. Winston threw three interceptions and had a costly fumble. The defense let Dak Prescott hit 32-of-36 passes for 279 yards and run up the middle for a first-half touchdown. They let Zeke Elliott ramble for 159 yards and a touchdown, while averaging 6.9 yards per carry. They let Dallas run 71 plays for 449 yards. They gave up four sacks.
Part of it, it seems, was that the Bucs came out too amped up. Remember, this is a franchise that isn’t used to playing in huge games. Maybe that has something to do with the silly head-butt by Winston earlier.
Again, I like Winston’s passion, but leadership is about being calm; it isn’t about turning into Ric Flair. The Bucs, as a whole, seemed too revved up at the start.
During this streak of overachievement by the Bucs, however, that has been part of their charm. They made stats irrelevant.
Not Sunday night, however.
“We didn’t play as smart as we have,” said Bucs coach Dirk Koetter. “We didn’t play as well.”
So how intelligent will the Bucs be for the next two weeks?
The five-game winning streak is over, but is Tampa Bay capable of going on a two-game streak? The Bucs play at New Orleans and at home against Carolina, both teams the Bucs have beaten.
If the Bucs really are a playoff team, they should be able to beat both again. The Bucs are ahead of both in the standings. Still, the Bucs have to go through Drew Brees and Cam Newton to be reasonably sure of the postseason, which is never easy.
“Just top to bottom, we did not play as well as we’ve been playing,” Koetter said. “Part of that is playing against a good football team and part of that is that this a tough environment. It was loud out there. This will serve us well next week when we go to play the Saints.
“It would be somewhat understandable to a game of this magnitude in this stage. There are a lot of young guys out there who haven’t been in a game of this magnitude before. Like I said, this will serve us well down the road. It hurts a lot tonight.”
The key? Like always, that’s Winston.
Sure, it would be wonderful if Martin would break in either game, but he doesn’t have a 100-yard game all season. Evans has been ordinary for three weeks.
That leaves it to the second-year quarterback, who was simply too streaky on Sunday.
Bucs QB Jameis Winston – Photo by: Getty Images
Winston had downfield targets, but he was off. The Bucs will be far better off when Winston establishes more of a passer’s touch.
He’ll be better, too, when the Bucs can put an offensive line like the Cowboys’ in front of him and a better back behind him. Once again Tampa Bay had no consistent ground game – 52 yards on 20 carries (2.6 avg.) – and right tackle Gosder Cherlius was repeatedly whipped so bad in the fourth quarter by defensive end David Irving that he was replaced by an undrafted rookie in Leonard Wester.
“We just have to keep winning and see how it plays out,” Winston said. “I’m going to keep fighting and I am not worried about not fighting. We just need to keep winning games and the more games we win, the better chance we have to get into the postseason.”
For the sake of their own growth, the Bucs need to make a legitimate run toward these playoffs. After a five-game winning streak, what good is 8-8?
Ten wins? That’s a better deal.
A smart team gets there. A calmer, more controlled team. An efficient team.
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Legendary sports columnist Gary Shelton returns to PewterReport.com for his second season of providing post-game commentary on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers like no one else can. No one has won more sports writing awards than Shelton, who has covered Tampa Bay area sports for decades with his unique brand of humor and insight. Bucs fans can Shelton daily on GarySheltonSports.com and follow him on Twitter at @Gary_Shelton
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